My time in northern Burma will be forever linked to one of the worst bouts of food poisoning I ever had. Other than the Llama Empanada Disaster of 2008, Myitkyina was the sickest I’ve been from eats – and this coming from someone who has eaten almost exclusively street food, in extremely strange places. Given the memorable train trip to get up to Myitkyina, I planned to spend at least a few days in Kachin State at their huge annual fair and then explore the region.
Instead, after a few days exploring and a weekend at the festivities, I ended up sprawled on the floor of a (not so clean) shared bathroom, too sick to make it back. Street poisoning does tend to strike at the most inopportune times; having an entire floor of aid workers hear me getting sick for the night wasn’t part of my plans for Kachin State.
Kachin State and the Chaotic Annual Fair
But before the food poisoning (from unwittingly drinking river water), before the oral rehydration salts, there was Myitkyina. My last post ended with breakfast and that’s where this one will begin. I found this woman’s soup stall on my hunt for a warm sweater, the north of Myanmar being far more cold than I realized. Buried in the maze of the morning market, somewhere within the twists and turns of colourful clothes and piles of blankets, it was one of the better breakfasts I ate in the country. Piles of fresh rice noodles, thick creamy bean paste, crumbled peanuts and a seemingly infinite litany of sauces and syrups added just before serving. As soups go, it was protein-filled and delicious.
Her grandsons would help with the stall before they scampered off to school. The older one was more reserved, but the younger boy – initially staring at me suspiciously from behind the counter – ended up sitting next to my stool with a huge grin. By the time I was ready to leave town, he was unabashedly a fan:
My morning routine was to go from the cramped morning market to the stands that linked the road from train tracks to river. With a rainbow of umbrellas set up to protect the produce and bright piles of fresh vegetables and fruit, it was a beautiful patchwork of color until the water’s edge. Wandering through the narrow, uneven aisles I’d watch the women buy their food for the day and carry it on their backs with a strength that astounded me.
From the main road to the river was perhaps a 3 minute walk, stretched through to half an hour by my casual wandering. Once at the street’s edge, a staircase descended down toward the Irawaddy, lined with women selling vegetables from bamboo baskets, the noisy negotiations echoing in the distance.
From the stairs, a serene Irawaddy (with bonus goats).
The morning market wound down around 10am, which left me hours of the day to explore town and chat with the other handful of tourists I met at my hostel. And then, the evening market began. I often say that the first thing I do in a new place is head to the markets, but it’s rarely a one-time occurrence. It remains one of the best ways to get to know a place and the pulse of its people. A close second, of course, is street food with locals. Markets in many Southeast Asian countries allow you to do both, with designated eating areas overflowing with steaming food and crammed full of tiny plastic chairs and tables to soak it all in.
Of course, not everything at the market is tasty…
A few days into my stay, the real reason for my visit began: the annual Kachin State Fair, or Manau. Coinciding with the Kachin State Day on January 10, the festival has been celebrated with increased tension in recent years (and given recent events it is unclear whether this year’s festival will be accessible). For those initial days in January, hundreds of thousands of Kachin from around the world congregated in tiny Myitkyina, a twenty minute tuk-tuk ride outside town. We were perhaps a dozen tourists (at most) and a few photographers, the scene amusingly one of reverse fishbowl-ism. First, professional Kachin or Burmese photographers would ask us to pose with local families. Then, at the end of the afternoon they could go to a photo booth to buy the picture with their token tourist in it. A fun addition to the noise and chaos of the fair.
At the center of the sprawling circular fairground were the manau poles, decorated with traditional Kachin symbols and covered in colourful flags. Radiating outward from the poles were circles of vendors and stands from sponsors like Myanmar Rum, as well as two separate stages at the far ends of the festival. Encircling them was a ring road packed with goodies: tiny tables piled high with fresh herbs for soup, sticky rice and bean wrapped in banana leaf and grilled on the fire, corn fritters and samosas, each a perfect afternoon snack.
Throughout the day, groups of Kachin would surround the poles in celebration, showing off their traditional costumes and winding tighter and tighter toward the poles as more people joined the fun.
The costumes themselves ranged from the simple to the dizzyingly complex. One of my favourites was the button-and-silver adorned black velvet jackets and longyis, standing out from the others in the crowd:
I took the following photo after a group of Kachin women decided to fix my longyi for me, instantly bonding all of us when they walked up and undid it from behind. After we all giggled profusely (I whipped around assuming someone was playing a prank on me – those longyis don’t stay up when they’re undone!), they immediately offered me food and introduced themselves, as though I was one of them from the very beginning. It’s of my favourite photos from the set, with all of its tenderness and affection:
At night the atmosphere changed.
Most of the young children were either asleep and elsewhere, or asleep slung on the backs of their mothers at the fair. Hundreds of street vendors joined the existing food options to serve the thousands of hungry attendees; the dusty paths were lined with pop-up tables and stools, low to the ground. Small fires dotted the ravines where women crouched in the flickering light, flipping thin, crisp dosas and rice crepes for an evening snack. And suddenly, the place was awash in Kachin whiskey and unfiltered rice wine, loud and raucous.
Music blared from the mainstage as dancers took turns performing in their traditional Kachin costumes from around the world. Japan, India, Bangladesh – all colourful and bringing an element of their national heritage to the show. On the far side of the grounds, Myanmar’s biggest stars took the stage to the cheers of an adoring audience: Iron Cross, a hodge-podge of men and women with voices to suit any song, performing English-language hits translated into Burmese. My little karaoke-fest on the boat ride to Mandalay? To Iron Cross DVDs, sung soulfully and enthusiastically by our young captain. At the manau, the audience had a hard time trying to figure out what was worth their attention – our small band of Westerners, or their beloved band.
View from our place in the crowd:
Squished in the Kachin fair, watching the show:
Despite the food poisoning during the last few days, I had an incredible time in Myitkyina. It was an otherworldly week, sandwiched between a train trip I’ll never forget and a series of boat mishaps soon followed by a solar eclipse.
There’s nothing black and white about Myanmar. Navigating the complicated folds of human relationships, history and politics necessitates a suspension of ordinary judgement and a willingness to see the world a little differently. When I first got to the country, I sent an email back to my family saying that each day in Myanmar was a series of intense, crazy stories, compressing the normal interactions I’d have over the span of a week into one 24-hour block. My short stay in the north was proof positive of my theory, and one of the more memorable places I’ve been on my travels.